Courtroom 5 at the John R. Hargrove Sr. District Courthouse in Brooklyn is as nondescript as a courtroom can get. Front and center is the judge's bench, a mammoth desk of dark wood shined to a high luster. A pile of files cascades along the front of the bench. Some of the files are inches thick, some contain only a handful of papers; each one tells the story of one of the defendants who will appear in this South Baltimore court that day. A green chalkboard stands to the left of the judge's bench, a diagram of a traffic accident scrawled across it.
As ordinary as the room is, by most accounts extraordinary things happen here--second chances, creative solutions, and even happy endings. Each Monday and Thursday, mental health court is held at Hargrove District Courthouse. Modeled after drug court, it is considered a "problem-solving court." But unlike its larger and older brother, mental health court has not strained under political pressure or the sheer number of cases, so far avoiding mandatory sentencing and other legislative restrictions.
For now, mental health court is a shining success story, according to the judges, attorneys, caseworkers, and others involved in the process. It stands as an example of what can happen when agencies cooperate to find solutions to the core problems that contribute to criminal acts--mental illness, developmental disabilities, and even drug addiction.
Representatives of the court begin to arrive at about 1:45, 15 minutes before the court is called to order. The assistant state's attorney, Irene Dey, wheels a plastic bin of files down the center aisle and sets up at the leftmost of two tables facing the judge's bench. Public defenders Sharon Bogins and Michelle Seltzer arrange their files on the right-hand table. Bailiff Larry Mize jokes with members of the Forensic Alternative Services Team (FAST), a team of mental health clinicians who work with the mentally ill within the criminal justice system.
This time before court is called to order is a bit of a break. The court officers--representatives from pretrial, parole and probation, Community Forensic Aftercare Program (CFAP), Development Disabilities Administration (DDA), FAST, and state hospitals, along with public defenders and prosecutors--have spent several hours together in the morning meeting. This initial private conference is like a giant huddle, during which each case is discussed in holistic terms, looking at each defendant's situation from all angles.
One of about 100 in the country, Baltimore's mental health court is offered as an alternative to traditional courts to a carefully defined group of defendants. Adults with serious mental illnesses, trauma disorders, or developmental disabilities are eligible, as long as their crimes do not involve domestic violence and there is no history of violent crimes. Only misdemeanors and felonies that fall within the jurisdiction of the District Court are heard in mental health court, and there are no services for juveniles.
Participation is strictly voluntary. There are no trials; clients are required to plead guilty in return for alternative sentencing. They must also agree to follow a strict plan of treatment and compliance. Participants are identified by FAST or may be referred by other agencies and court representatives.
The idea is to preserve public safety while reducing the number of mentally ill inmates in jails and lowering recidivism rates and the number of hospitalizations. In short, the goal is to treat the mental illness--and substance-abuse problem in some cases--so that the cycle of criminal activity stops.
Defendants--who are called clients in this court--and their family members file into wooden benches. Most are sitting quietly, talking in low tones or simply staring up at the judge's bench. A man in a burnt orange trench coat and electric blue tie with a huge Afro roams around the room, trying out different rows of benches. He sits for a few moments and then moves on. He leaves the room and hurries back moments later. Even when seated, his legs keep moving.
Mini meetings break out throughout the room and out in the hall. In hushed voices and louder tones, court monitors--attorneys, social workers, and probation agents--confer with clients and their family members. They explain what to expect or just check in. Clients give updates and share complaints.
Probation agent Evelyn Mays asks one client if he's had lunch yet. Her tone is light and friendly--they could be sitting on a front porch on a sunny day rather than inside a courtroom. After some small talk, she touches on the business for the day--does he understand what will be happening in a few moments?
"All rise." The bailiff announces that court is in session, and Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey takes her place behind the bench. Her spiky white hair contrasts dramatically with black-framed glasses that match her robe. She's tiny, but her presence is commanding.
The first case is called, and a woman walks to the public defender's table to stand next to Bogins. This is not her first time in front of Cooksey, but that's not a bad thing. Mental health court clients are required to report their progress to the court on a regular basis. It's clear that this client is doing well, and she's puffed up with pride.
Bogins says that her client just got a job as a clerk in a thrift store and is about to celebrate her first-year anniversary of being sober. Many of the defendants seen in mental health court are "co-occurring," dealing with both a mental illness or developmental disability and a substance-abuse problem--a challenge for the court. But in this case, things are looking up.
"Anything you want to add?" Cooksey asks, after court monitors have given their reports.
"I just want to say thank you," the client says.
"You just keep doing what you're doing," Cooksey says.
"If someone is the problem, they can't be the solution," the client says knowingly. "And you gave me a chance. I'm going to send you a copy of my chip for one year. I only have three days to go to get to a year."
"You do everything you're required to do," Cooksey continues. "You'll see me periodically in the next 12 months, and if you don't, we'll talk about it then."
"We don't want to go there," the client says. There's a twitter of laughter from those watching the proceedings.
"No, we don't want to go there," Cooksey agrees, smiling. "Good luck. I'll be thinking about you on your one-year."
These types of exchanges--congenial, personal--are common in Judge Cooksey's court, even when things aren't going so well for the client. She and the other two judges who oversee mental health court are genuinely interested in the clients' progress. They have that luxury, and they have that responsibility.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 16 percent of the prison or jail population in this country has a serious mental illness, three times the rate in the general population. National Health Care for the Homeless found in 2002 that people with mental illness are 64 percent more likely to be arrested, and the Brazelton Center for Mental Health Law reported in 2000 that 49 percent of mentally ill federal inmates had three or more prior arrests. Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says that the state reflects the national trends.
"There is no disagreement that there is an overrepresentation of mentally ill people in the criminal justice system, at every level," Cooksey says in an interview from her office. Though not usually severe, crimes committed by the mentally ill tend to be very visible, sometimes combined with erratic behavior, so there is a high likelihood of arrest. "It's a criminal justice crisis, and it's a health crisis," she says.
On top of that, research has shown that the mentally ill are incarcerated for longer periods of time, "because there's a difficulty in conforming to the rules of the institution," Cooksey says. "They're not getting the kind of treatment they need. The prisons and jails--they're not designed to be emergency rooms, they're not designed to be psychiatric hospitals. But they're forced into it."
Cooksey is no stranger to the potential problems in these institutions. Before becoming a district judge in Baltimore, she worked for the Justice Department in the Civil Rights Division, looking into civil-rights violations in hospitals, jails, and prisons. After nearly two decades as a Baltimore City District Court judge, she finally decided to do something about what she calls the revolving door of arrest and incarceration of the mentally ill.
First, in 2000, Cooksey offered to hear all of the competency cases in the city. Later, in 2002, the city's mental health court was born, modeled on similar programs throughout the country.
"The hope is to improve the quality of life of the individual and to stop the cycle and, hopefully, impact recidivism," she says. And the issue doesn't stop at providing mental health treatment--housing and drug addiction are also major concerns, along with employment and education. Each piece of the equation is important to help clients stabilize their lives and stay out of the justice system, and the court is designed to address the gaps in care that too many mentally ill people face.
"Early identification is key," Cooksey continues. That's where FAST comes in.
"Our goal is to keep them out of jail if possible," says Jane Tambree, a program director with the FAST program, and she's not just talking about the long term. "Central booking is a hard place to be. That kind of stimulation is a lot for mental health patients to deal with. They're dealing with their internal stimulation."
Tambree and her colleagues identify the mentally ill who are incarcerated and, when appropriate, recommend them to the mental health court. The court has strict requirements for defendants, she acknowledges, "and they struggle." Those who work for the court have all heard the program called coercive, but Tambree emphasizes that participation is completely voluntary. Defendants can opt out at any time and take their chances in regular court.
"It's a lot" for mentally ill defendants to face, Tambree says. "But then there's that benefit. You come to see the judge, and she looks you in the eye. You get attention and then you get acknowledgement if you do well."
Public defender Sharon Bogins reflects on her clients and the court as she smokes an after-court cigarette outside the Hargrove building. Smoking has deepened her voice, giving it an authoritative quality.
"In Maryland, the jail is one of--if not the--largest mental health facilities in the state," she says. "I've seen too many really sick people end up in jail when they should be in the hospital. With good treatment, they wouldn't be here."
The typical client of mental health court is homeless and indigent. Bogins says she's had clients who were 18 years old as well as a septuagenarian. Charges range from trespassing to drug possession to simple assaults. What mental health court can provide such varied clients facing such varied problems is personal attention--there are no cookie-cutter solutions here. "Because mental illness affects people so differently, you have to treat people on a case-by-case basis," Bogins says.
And for that reason, success is also variable. "If somebody who is continually getting arrested doesn't get arrested for a couple of years," Bogins says, putting out her cigarette, "that's success."
The client is burly--a big African-American man with close-cropped hair and wearing a black T-shirt. He's handcuffed from behind, and his legs are shackled. All of the clients who are transported to the court by the city--from a hospital, group home, or jail--are cuffed. On his left wrist, just above the metal restraint, the client wears a wide, white studded bracelet. He stands still and quiet to the right of Bogins, his attorney.
The man's case shatters any impression that the state's attorneys go easy on clients in this court. He is here for a regular check-in, but new charges have arisen. These charges are the result of an incident that occurred years ago, but it is not clear whether they will be considered in mental health court or elsewhere. Irene Dey is forcefully advocating that the client be sent back to jail. Bogins and social workers from the DDA and CFAP are advocating for another hospital evaluation.
"May we approach?" Bogins asks Judge George Lipman, who's presiding over the day's proceedings,.
A new charge for a crime committed in 2003 has surfaced--one that is only discussed in hushed terms at the judge's bench. It's not yet clear if the case can even be dealt with in mental health court. Lipman wants the client to be re-evaluated before going further.
The problem is timing. To please prosecutors, Lipman needs to address these new charges, which did not arise in his court. To please the public defender and the court monitors, he needs to have the client evaluated again. But can he get a bed quickly enough?
After a quick powwow with Lipman, the attorneys return to their tables. "The state's case is not an incoherent case," the judge says, looking at Dey. "I don't want to lose all of the progress either." He asks everyone to take a time-out and look over the reports of the new allegations, which arrived only that morning. The client is led to a chair on the right side of the room, and the next case is called.
Court is court, whether it is driven by compassion or punishment. In the criminal justice system, there is inherent tension between prosecutor and defender. Mental health court is no exception.
"As we're all trying to play our roles--while we're trying to do the right thing--in an adversarial system, there will be conflict," Assistant State's Attorney Phyllis McCann says. "I think people need to be accountable--there are people who are mentally ill and don't commit crimes." But while McCann acknowledges that she is not the court cheerleader, she values the compassion that the court asks of all its players.
"Talk about a disenfranchised population," she says of the clients who go through mental health court. "They really are in need of somebody who can help them through the system."
Like everyone else involved with mental health court, McCann has a history of working with populations on the fringe--she started her law career as an advocate with the House of Ruth, a center for victims of domestic violence in Baltimore. "It took a while to get accustomed to working with people with a social bent," she says. "For me, I had a more prosecutorial bent. But it was also important for me to feel I was doing good work."
McCann is a monitor for conditional-release cases throughout the city. Some of her cases involved the mentally ill, some didn't. When Hargrove opened in March 2003, she became the prosecutor for mental health court. For the past two and a half years, she's been exclusively handling mental-health court cases. Last year, the court added another dedicated state's attorney, Irene Dey.
"I don't really see myself as a particularly social-worky kind of gal," McCann says. "My bottom line always has to be public safety. To the extent that you believe that treatment reduces recidivism, that's my agency's goal." Her 18 years as a prosecutor and her experiences with mental health court have shown her the value of a holistic approach. Many of the clients seen in mental health court have suffered some sort of trauma, she notes, and "until you treat the trauma, you're just putting a Band-Aid on this gaping wound." If mental health court can help a client regain control of his or her life, that's one more person who won't wind up in another crime, another courtroom, or another cell.
"Here's a way to have a direct line of fire," McCann says of her position in the court. "Every day, I feel that I do good work. I get to follow my conscience on what I feel is the right thing to do in a case."
In the hall outside Courtroom 5, Bogins and McCann talk about the case that has left Lipman stumped. The tension is still there, as each attorney argues her case, but despite the disagreement, it's clear that they're on the same team.
At the end of the court docket Lipman comes back to the contentious case that they all left earlier. He's looking for consensus, he says. McCann is at the state's attorney desk with Dey. She, Bogins, and two other court monitors whisper in hushed tones with the judge at his bench.
Finally, a decision is reached. Miraculously a bed has been found, and the client will be immediately transported to Rosewood State Hospital in Baltimore County. The next day, he'll be admitted to Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health System in Rockville for an evaluation.
But Lipman isn't finished with the client. As he does with each case he hears, he asks the client if there is anything he wants to say.
"What about my stuff in the group home?" the client asks. His voice is slow and a bit slurred. After he's assured that his possessions will be safe, the client adds, dejectedly, "I was doing good."
"Nobody thinks you'll be in the hospital for long, but we've got new charges and we've got to look into that," Lipman says.
A compromise was reached--but not without a fair amount of negotiation and perhaps some arm-twisting to find a bed.
Finding resources for mental health court clients is often a challenge in itself, but when mental illness is combined with addiction, the complications skyrocket. There are few state resources for treating the mentally ill, especially for co-occurring clients--those with a mental illness or developmental disability and a substance-abuse problem.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that between 75 percent and 80 percent of all defendants entering into the criminal justice system have substance-abuse problems. That means a high percentage of defendants seen in mental health court are co-occurring. But there are only 50 state beds for co-occurring patients. Not only are co-occurring patients considered difficult to treat, but residential treatment for such patients is very expensive. The Developmental Disabilities Agency has a waiting list of 16,000 clients, and private mental health care and rehabilitation providers may not be an option, as most of the clients the court sees are either uninsured or underinsured and have no money.
So, if a judge feels that hospitalization is the right course of action, he or she must depend on a controversial practice--ordering Maryland's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration (ADAA) to evaluate the defendant, recommend a course of treatment, and promptly place the client in the recommended program. This is called an 8-505--a reference to the article in which the provision is listed in Maryland's health code. If, after evaluation, hospitalization is recommended, the judge can order the ADAA to place the client in a program, called an 8-507 in the courts.
The controversy with using 8-505/8-507 is that forcing the state to place clients doesn't necessarily speed things up for co-occurring clients. If there are no beds, there are no beds, and the client must wait for one to open up. This means long periods of time in jail. Public defender Sharon Bogins cites startling statistics: Defendants without a mental illness will wait for a bed in a residential substance-abuse treatment facility for two to three weeks. Defendants with a mental illness spend as long as nine months in jail waiting for treatment.
"There aren't enough co-occurring beds," Bogins says. "The more they cut beds in the hospital, the more we have people in jail."
In fact, the Baltimore City Public Defender's Office has twice filed contempt of court order against the ADAA--once in 2006 and again in '07. The cases were eventually dropped, but the point was made: Mental health court cannot do its job without more treatment facilities for clients with drug addiction and mental illness or developmental disability.
"What you have in mental health court is the capacity to do an outpatient supervision pretty well," Lipman says. "And you have access to the mental health hospitals to some degree. So the thing that is limiting all these efforts is this need for residential treatment for co-occurring people--when they're not making it on the outside. There's no disagreement that they need treatment. It's just not there, and that's been a very discouraging experience in the last five years."
In February, Lipman and Cooksey submitted a report to the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Appropriations Committee detailing the needs of the mentally ill in the state's criminal justice system. The report was co-produced by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
According to the report, judges have had to rely more and more on 8-505 and 8-507 orders. This is a statewide concern, but most of these orders come from Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. From 2001 to 2007, 8-507 commitments jumped by more than tenfold, from 35 orders to 394 orders.
"The delays are legally deterring the use of the treatment alternatives," Lipman says. "We're doing OK. We're doing something, it's important. But the demand exceeds the supply."
And for some clients, this makes the decision to go into mental health court a tough one. A defense attorney's first responsibility is to the client, and sometimes that means recommending jail time over treatment.
Justin is excited. He hasn't owned a car in four years, and his new convertible is sitting in the parking lot under his office window.
A success story of the mental health court, Justin (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) was in a very different place only a year ago. Charged with cocaine possession, he had tried to go through the criminal justice system alone, but he just couldn't manage his addiction and his debilitating depression and anxiety.
Before spiraling downward into substance abuse, Justin was on top of things. He had bachelor's degree and a high-paying job. "I was successful, and then I got hooked on drugs," he says. He also stopped taking his medication, and in March 2004 he was arrested for possession of cocaine in Baltimore County. His situation went from bad to worse.
"Hindsight is 20/20," he says. "If I had done what I should have done then, I would have been done" with the criminal justice system. Instead, in August 2004, he was arrested in the city on another possession charge. He made bail again but didn't show up for court. He was slapped with a failure-to-appear charge and was arrested again. Once again, he was bailed out.
His attorney suggested that he meet with a private addictions counselor to get a handle on his problem and show the court that he was moving toward a solution. "They put me on a plan," he says. Justin was to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, meet with his addictions counselor, and take his medications.
"I was still not ready," he acknowledges. He didn't keep his appointments. His attorney asked for continuance after continuance on the possession case in Baltimore City, but Justin missed another court date, and this time was denied bail.
By that time, he was scared. "I don't think jail is the place for people with mental illness and drug addiction to get better," he says. "In fact, for people with depression and anxiety, it makes it worse."
Central booking was a nightmare. "You're stuck in a holding tank, overcrowded," he says. "I had to sleep on my shoe. They took my belt, so my pants were falling down. I know it's not supposed to be easy, but it was terrible."
He says he was surrounded by people who were coming down from highs or in the throes of withdrawal. The smell of vomit and echoes of agitated inmates were almost too much to bear.
"My anxiety increased," Justin says. "It was just overwhelming. I was basically sobbing all the time. Especially for a guy, it's terrible to cry in there."
He says that, in addition to dealing with his minute-to-minute situation, he couldn't get answers about his case. "You're just in there alone," he says. "It was over a week before I got my meds."
Finally, he was visited by someone from the FAST program, which he says made him feel much better. He agreed to follow the terms of mental health court, which included pleading guilty to the possession charges, and over time he was placed in an intensive co-occurring outpatient program at the University of Maryland Medical System.
"No more private addictions counselor. No more doing it my way," Justin says. At the same time, he says, he learned that he was ultimately in charge of his progress: "At the intensive outpatient program, I learned that I have a choice."
Like many mental health court clients, Justin wouldn't have otherwise known about the drug-treatment program that he says saved his life. "Clearly I tried to find help--the private addictions counselor--and it didn't work." Justin was one of the lucky ones, in fact: He still had insurance that covered his treatment and didn't require hospitalization.
Still, the road hasn't been without major bumps. Justin relapsed in August 2006, a common occurrence for addicts. But this time, he had resources that he could count on. "I learned from it. The people at the University of Maryland supported me," he says. "Now I have too much to lose to get high. I can look at myself in the mirror. It's all good."
For nearly a month, Justin has been working as an employment specialist for STEP (Schapiro Training and Employment Program), a division of Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake. He got the job with help from mental health court, and he cherishes the opportunity to give job counseling and coaching to people who have been in similar situations to his. He completed the outpatient program, and his case at mental health court was closed out on March 3. His next goal is to start graduate school.
Justin's experience helps him better understand the clients he sees at STEP. Getting treatment, a place to live, proper clothing, training--all of these things are crucial for clients looking to find solid employment.
"Three and a half years ago, I was kind of a piece of shit," he says. "The mental health court saved my life and got me back on track."
Larry Rogers' voice carries from the back of the courtroom. Head of the public defender's office at Hargrove, he's meeting with one of the handful of clients whom he represents. Wearing a red and black head scarf and a black shiny jacket, the client is not happy about something. Rogers brushes off her concerns. There are bigger fish to fry.
"The judge wants to know that you're being more cooperative with the plan," he says sternly. "They don't want to hear about `I don't care about this, I don't want to do that, I don't care what the court says.' Alright? Alright."
His client's case is called, and Rogers accompanies her to the front of the courtroom. Judge Lipman notes that he's not gotten good reports on her behavior.
"I only missed one appointment," the client interrupts.
Rogers turns to her and puts his finger to his lips, but she's upset by the possibility that in order to ensure compliance, she may need to have her medications administered by injection.
"No! I don't need injections," she insists. "I don't want injections."
After a few moments of deliberation, Lipman agrees that injections are not necessary at this point. The client claps gleefully. Her face splits with a wide grin as she looks up at Rogers.
"We're just saying that you need to stay with the program," Lipman says. "We've got to keep you seeing the doctor and getting your medications."
"And taking them," Irene Dey, the assistant state's attorney, interjects.
"And taking them," Lipman agrees.
In this case, the client is found incompetent to stand trial but is not considered dangerous. She can remain in the community as long as she complies with the mandates of her program. "If you work this and complete it, and it stays solid, you're almost done," Judge Lipman says to her, and she walks back to her seat--with a spring in her step.
Mental health court was created with zero additional public funds and zero additional resources. But as Assistant State's Attorney Phyllis McCann points out, free is never free. Agencies like the public defender's office and the states attorney's office have designated attorneys to the court. "To dedicate two senior prosecutors is a lot," McCann says. "And I think the fact that we do that is demonstrative of the commitment that this office has to mental health court."
That commitment is visible within several state and city agencies, including city pretrial, parole, and probation, the Developmental Disabilities Agency (DDA), and the Community Forensic Aftercare Program (CFAP). Representatives from these entities are responsible for tracking defendants' progress and reporting to the court--the good news and the bad.
Since 1982, CFAP has been monitoring defendants throughout the state who are found not criminally responsible and are put on a conditional release order (which means they are not deemed a threat to themselves or others). About 700 people are currently on conditional release, but not all of these clients are from mental health court. Social worker Joanne Dudeck is largely responsible for CFAP clients who are also part of mental health court.
"We don't personally meet with our folks on a regular basis," she explains. "It is our job to interact with the various agencies that the client is working with, to monitor their compliance or identify gaps."
Each time one of her clients is in court, Dudeck is there, giving updates on many of those who appear. Sometimes she can say that things are going well. Sometimes she has bad news to deliver--a conflict with group-home staff members or a missed appointment. Dudeck often provides the supporting evidence of the clients' progress.
"On a daily basis, we interact with folks who are receiving services," she says. "We may talk with family members, we may talk with agencies. We sometimes have to educate the provider--if you don't tell me that a client is compliant, I may misrepresent their case in court."
Dudeck's supervisor, Susan Steinberg, says that 90,000 Marylanders are in the public mental health system. About 50 percent of these are adults, but much fewer actually commit crimes.
"Just because you have a mental illness doesn't mean you get a free pass," she says. "But if mental illness played a role, those are the people we want to help."
Other clients see probation officer Evelyn Mays, a 10-year veteran of the city's probation and parole agency who has worked exclusively with mental health court for three years. Unlike the stereotypical probation officer, Mays is not chained to a desk, hoping that at least one client in her overpacked schedule will decide not to show up. Instead, she spends a great deal of time in her car, meeting clients where they live, where they work, in treatment facilities--pretty much anywhere. And her cell phone is rarely quiet.
"They call me day and night," she says. "It doesn't matter. I want to be available. Everybody [else] is closed to them at 5 o'clock. I can't be closed at 5. I'm more involved with the whole person, not just the case file."
And that underscores the big difference between other courts and mental health court, which treats each client holistically.
"I think we target the core cause of the behavior," McCann says. "Some people get tired of getting locked up, so they stop committing crimes, but others need more."
Thedrick Tapp is yet another court monitor, representing the pretrial release services division of the court. He once oversaw compassionate releases, which were given to critically ill inmates, allowing them to die at home or in a hospital. "Eventually, they transferred me down to mental health court," he says.
His shaved head as shiny as a bowling ball, Tapp has a formidable appearance. He dresses to the nines for court, and while it may seem like a permanent scowl is affixed to his mouth, a smile is never far from his lips. Like Dudeck and Mays, Tapp often forges lasting relationships with his clients. "I had a couple of clients," he notes, "they asked if they were finished with court, could they keep seeing me." It's not just about the structure, he says. It's about talking with someone who understands where they've been and where they want to go.
"It's great that people can get a second chance, once they get into treatment and get their mind together," Tapp says. Once they do the hard work.
Twice a year--in June and December--mental health court holds a graduation party for clients who have successfully completed the program and have been released by the court. By all accounts, these are touching events, when clients, their family members, and court officials celebrate hard-won successes. The stories told there are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and they keep the court going.
"I find the acknowledgement parties to be poignant," Phyllis McCann says. "They finally have a place where someone listens, can understand what to do, and do something about it."
"When people succeed, they really succeed," Judge Cooksey says. "I've seen people reunited with their children--something that they never thought would happen."
For Cooksey and others, the successes belongs solely to the clients. "But it's fragile," she says. "When someone is rearrested, it's disappointing. It's hideously disappointing."
But she admits that success is not necessarily perfection. Improvement counts in a big way: "It's a very wonderful thing to see people improve."
On April 22, Cooksey will retire, but she's not giving up her mental health court cases. She's requested to be recalled so she can continue to hear cases and work for improvements in the system. Her request will be heard later this month, but she says she anticipates "smooth sailing. And apparently so does everyone else, because I am scheduled to sit right after my effective retirement date." Cooksey is also advising other jurisdictions around the state that are setting up mental health courts. Prince George's County already has one in place, and Montgomery County is considering it.